NEED FOR SPEED
Keith has kept pace with the modern game
THE more Keith Higgins’s game seems to evolve, the more it stays the same.
Along with Kerry’s Marc O Se, he’s been the prototype attacking corner-back since emerging more than a decade ago and, like O Se, could be relied upon to pick up the opposition’s blue-chip forward too.
His predecessor in the Mayo No.4 jersey was Gary Ruane, and their time on the panel overlapped briefly.
The thing that most stood out about Higgins back then remains his most striking attribute now, even at 32.
“Off the mark, he was one of the quickest players I’ve come across,” says Ruane (below). “He still has a great sidestep at pace, he can go round a man and leave them for dead.
“He was a very good man-marker as well. But his biggest asset would be his pace, coming out of corner-back. If he can beat his first man it’s a huge advantage for Mayo because it sets up so many attacks.”
Higgins’ stock was already high before James Horan took charge of Mayo in late 2010, but he credits the Ballintubber man as being pivotal to how he and Mayo bloomed in subsequent seasons.
Speaking a couple of years ago, he said: “When I came in first, it was a matter of train Tuesday, Thursday and play on Sunday. There might have been a gym programme, but it wasn’t exactly monitored or anything.
“You might go and you might not go and you might go down to the chipper one of the days instead!
“But James just came in and changed the whole mentality, the lifestyle changed, the whole lot changed.”
Ruane notes Higgins is a much different specimen now, but hasn’t been compromised for that.
“Even though he’s got physically stronger he has held onto his pace, which you don’t often see. Some fellas bulk up and they lose some of their pace but I don’t think Keith has. Even with his age, his pace is still huge.”
Like O Se, there was a view that Higgins’s footballing ability would serve the team better in a more advanced position and Horan switched him to centre-forward midway through the 2013 Championship with some success. Ruane said: “James tried him there a bit and possibly maybe should have utilised him more there but he would be more at home in the backs, even though this year he’s getting up the field a lot. “I don’t think his scoring from wing-forward would be high enough in the modern game.”
In recent seasons, Higgins has been relieved of his responsibility as Mayo’s chief firefighter.
Although his duel with Kerry’s James O’donoghue in the 2014 All-ireland semifinal replay was hailed as an epic, Higgins’ glass was half-empty afterwards.
“You might say two of the goals were penalties but I wouldn’t have been happy in terms of my role in getting caught for them,” he reflected.
“Ultimately he scored 2-6. I could have done things differently so you can never be happy with that sort of stat.” Brendan Harrison has since emerged as Mayo’s go-to man to shut down the opposition’s most potent threat but the evolution of the game has helped Higgins shine in a different way. With virtually no one playing three inside forwards these days, the veteran is thriving as a sweeper. “He seems to be more at home not playing a man-marking role, but as an attacking corner-back nearly,” says Ruane.
“The way the modern game is now, you don’t have too many man-markers needed, they’re nearly marking space more than marking men and he gets that opportunity to attack more.
“If he goes well again I can see him being in line for an All-star and maybe Footballer of the Year.”
After his season threatened to go up in smoke with a red card in the loss to Galway, that would be some turnaround.
HE’LL CARRY THE FIGHT Dublin’s forwards got a taste of what to expect from Keith Higgins earlier this year LONG WAY BACK After last year’s final defeat ROCK SOLID Against Kerry in semi-final replay